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There are plenty of places to seek answers to questions, including search engines like Google and Q&A sites like Quora. Most recently, Jelly, a new startup created by Twitter cofounder Biz Stone, is squishing its way into the fray with a free smartphone app that lets you ask questions appended with images, and give answers to people in your extended social network.

Like Twitter, which faced much skepticism early on, plenty of folks are raising an eyebrow in Jelly’s direction while trying to figure out what it’s good for. The answer, at least partly, could be shopping. Imagine getting your closest friends’ opinions on a new pair of shoes before actually buying them. Or getting second opinions on whether the gadget in front of you is as good as the salesperson claims.

While I hated Twitter at first, I think Jelly is great right out of the—er—jar. It’s a simple, clever way to solicit quick, concise opinions about everything from gadgets to fashion to the identity of the mystery mold behind your fridge.

Since it’s mobile only (for now, at least) and has a 240-character limit per post, Jelly inspires fairly short questions and quick, concise answers. It’s low on features—there’s no way to search for specific users, questions that have already been answered, or topics, and you can’t respond to answers.

I spent two days trying out Jelly on my iPhone (it’s available for iOS and Android right off the bat). Getting started is simple: after you connect your Facebook and Twitter accounts, you’ll see a question in search of answers from one of your friends or friends of friends dominating the display, and you can tap on one to add an answer or read existing ones, or flick downward to get rid of it. If you want to ask a question, you have to take or include a photo (you can use an image on your phone or search Google Images within the app), type a question, and submit it.

Jelly will alert you when you receive an answer or if someone “likes” an answer you supplied. You can give other users virtual thank-you notes for their answers. And there are also ways to dislike questions and answers or mark them as inappropriate.

I had a hard time figuring out what to ask early on, and I think many other Jelly users were (and are) in the same boat, indicated by the overabundance of lame-o questions like “What airport am I in?” with a photo of an airport attached and “Who is this?” with a photo of a presumed coworker. I spent a lot of time flicking away questions that were either people just testing out the service or asking something that didn’t really deserve an answer.

Given its photo-plus-question composition, Jelly is clearly positioned as a good place to identify mystery objects (a plant or graffiti mural you pass on the street, for example). After a while, though, I started to see that much of Jelly’s potential lies in its ability to quickly gather a chorus of opinions on tons of topics—from the more stimulating like music and shopping to the more mundane like pet and plant care. As users figure this out, I expect the ratio of silly to earnest questions to improve, and Jelly’s utility to climb.

When I asked questions like “Is it worth hiring a wedding photographer?” and “What’s the best kind of small/medium-sized dog for someone with dog/cat allergies?” I got many helpful responses, including, with the first question, some links to local photographers. But I also noticed people starting to ask for wine and restaurant recommendations, and I could see it becoming useful for purchases (you could easily take a photo of two pairs of shoes side by side to share with the hive mind).

I noticed others experimenting with Jelly’s recommendation potential, too. One guy wanted to know which shoes he should wear with his paisley shirt (he included a photo with one on each foot), while another asked about buying a cheap fixed-gear bike. Meanwhile, others polled for ramen, burger, and cocktail bar suggestions. Most of the time, the answers came in fairly quickly and were helpful.

I got on a roll when it came to answering questions, too. I gave my opinion on David Foster Wallace’s epic Infinite Jest (“Great. Loooooong. Good one to read with a group/in a class.”), identified an image of a wood-block figure as a product called Cubebot sold by Areaware, and shared my surreal experience of watching US Airways Flight 1549 float down the Hudson River in 2009. I felt a little thrill each time an alert informed me that someone had marked my answer as “good” or sent me an in-app thank-you note for my effort.

The app is decently designed, and there are thoughtful touches. If you think a non-Jelly-using friend would be a good person to answer a question about, say, bread mold, you can forward them a link to the question so they can see and answer it on the Web. And if you are simply curious about the responses people will post to others’ questions, you can “star” a question and then flick it away; then you’ll be notified when others answer it.

Still, Jelly really needs some other features. There is no categorization system for questions, no way to search, and, as many users noted (mostly in questions, since it’s the only way to do so), there’s no “back” button within the app. There also doesn’t seem to be an organized way to see only the questions you’ve asked or provided answers for; all your activity is shown in a long, chronological list that is a pain to scroll through.

Perhaps more importantly, Jelly needs to improve its ability to determine which questions you should see, so it can make it more likely that you’ll offer helpful answers and contribute your own questions. The app already uses an algorithm for this, but it could take some time before there’s a significant volume of data for it to learn from. In the meantime, I don’t expect to stop seeing questions about football teams, iPhone app organizing, and almond butter anytime soon.

But despite its relative simplicity, Jelly is already a great tool for getting quick answers from your social network whether you’re shopping, wandering through a museum, or planted on your couch. With some tweaks, it could really stick.

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Credit: Image by MIT Technology Review

Tagged: Computing, Web, Google, mobile, Twitter, smartphone, Android, iPhone, app, iOS, Q&A, Quora, social

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